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Last Updated: Friday, 23 December 2005, 09:58 GMT
Reliving horror - return to tsunami
By Hannah Goff
BBC News

Scores of British families are returning to Thailand and Sri Lanka to take part in memorial services for loved ones lost in the Asian tsunami.

For many it is not only about making timely tributes to their lost relatives and the thousands of others who died.

Carole Fairbairn
Carole worked as a teacher at the International School in Bangkok

It is also about confronting the horrors many saw when they went out to the disaster zone to search for them.

Michael Pitt lost nearly all his blood relatives when the wave devastated the Thai holiday resort of Khao Lak.

He remembers seeing the television coverage and feeling annoyed at the overwhelming focus on the British victims.

But he soon heard through another family member that his sister Carole Fairbairn and her husband Colin, both 58 and who lived in Bangkok, had been caught up in the disaster.

All he knew was that they had been enjoying some "time at the beach" with their son Tom, 25, and his girlfriend Dorothy when the wave hit.

Dorothy had survived but was badly injured in hospital and alone.

"This place Khao Lak, which I had never even heard of, now entered into my world.

Colin Fairbairn and his son Tom
The Fairbairn family had just been hiking in Laos

"I immediately formed a decision that I needed to go," says Mr Pitt, a local government consultant from Croydon, south London.

He was there within 72 hours and began the gruelling search for his missing relatives.

"The things that wake me up in the night - it's the destruction at Khao Lak. It's all the bodies in the body bags, because I spent a lot of time there looking for them."

He says the first real impact for him that something really terrible had happened was when he saw the walls covered in the pictures of the missing outside in Phuket.

"Then I saw just how horrendous it was. It was unbelievable. I mean I've seen the aftermath of bombs in Pakistan.... but this."

Mr Pitt spent his days going to the temples, searching through the bodies and visiting the hospitals around Phuket.

Their eyes met for a brief second then all he can remember was being bumped over and over - like a washing machine
Michael Perry

"You try to make links. Has someone seen them? Then all the time there's this dawning realisation that if they're not anywhere you've been - they're dead."

Michael Perry, who lost his daughter Hannah Tugwell, 36, when the wave hit her beach bungalow in Khao Lak, also remembers the emotional battle between hope and horror.

"No one had seen my daughter, so I did what any father would do I went out to Thailand."

After checking the hospitals in Phuket, it was suggested he might head to Khao Lak to search for her.

Hannah Tugwell
Hannah was about to go diving with her husband Matthew

"You hang on to these forlorn things of hope - perhaps she's just lying unconscious somewhere - hit on the head or something."

Like Mr Pitt, he was stunned by the intensity of the damage around Phuket and in Khao Lak.

"It was totally devastated," said Mr Perry, who is retired and from Truro.

"I am glad to say I didn't find her here - I came home empty-handed as it were - except for my son in law, Matthew, who I brought back."

Special needs teacher Hannah and her husband Matthew from Maidstone, Kent, had been planning to go diving off the nearby Simeon Islands.

"When the wave came Matthew remembers being pushed up against the roof. Their eyes met for a brief second then all he can remember was being bumped over and over - like a washing machine, " Mr Perry said.


"He never saw my daughter again."

Hannah's body was identified in February through her dental records. The family held a cremation ceremony in Phuket the following month.

After that Mr Perry thought he would never go back to Thailand but then he heard about the anniversary commemorations and the Thai government's offer of flights and two nights' accommodation.

"So now I am going back to the same place. I suppose it's a nice sort of closure.

"The way we feel about it is - it's like a school sports day. All the other parents will be there and I can just here Hannah's voice saying, 'How typical!' if we weren't to go.

Hannah and Matthew Tugwell
Hannah married Matthew on Mount Cook in New Zealand

"I have lots of little commissions - flowers to spread in the sea and such like. It just seems like the right thing to do."

About 160 British families will be supported by Foreign Office staff and teams from the British Red Cross-sponsored tsunami support network during the trip.

They will be met at the airports and assisted with accommodation and escorted to memorial events.

Mr Pitt says the support network has been a place where he has been able to share what he went through without having to explain.

"It's a bit like joining a club being a victim of the tsunami - all sorts of people have a way into your life."

We're not really sure what it's going to be - it will be what it will be
Michael Pitt

Although sometimes the victims and relatives have needed others to take control, he says, it is important they are able to set their own agenda.

He travelled out to Thailand in early December with his wife Kirin.

They went early to catch up with all the people who helped him from the International School in Bangkok, where his sister had worked, and to see how the aid effort has progressed.

But it is also about facing the loss and the death, he says.

"We're not really sure what it's going to be - it will be what it will be.

"It's a time to remember and to reflect and to do all those things - but it will be gutting as well - unimaginably so."

The destroyed resort at Khao Lak
Khao Lak was the centre of devastation in Thailand
But some of those affected have more of an eye on the future.

Pip Richards, 55, and her partner Joe Fenn, 51, who were holidaying in Hikkaduwa in Sri Lanka when the tsunami struck, are returning for the anniversary to set up a factory to process coir, the fibre of the husk of the coco-nut which is used for making ropes.

"We went back to Sri Lanka in February and we only realised then the scale of the destruction.

"There were boats upside down in the water and whole villages obliterated," said Miss Richards.

The couple, from Helston, Cornwall, who run environmental group the Sustainable Trust, are hoping to provide jobs for about 70 victims still living in temporary accommodation, because this is how they feel they can be "most useful".

People in need of emotional support or someone to talk to can call the tsunami support line on 0845 054 7474. For more information about the support network visit

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